Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno Notte) happens to be the 24th film that the 66-year-old Italian filmmaker has turned out in his 40-year-career, which began with a bang in 1965 with his critically acclaimed Fists in the Pocket (I Pugni in Tasca), a bizarre dissection of a family of incestuous epileptics at war with each other and with the decadent society in which they are enmeshed. This stormy debut feature was sparked by the explosive performance of Lou Castel as a firebrand to end all firebrands. Mr. Bellocchio consolidated his international reputation with his second feature, China Is Near (La Cina è Vicina), in 1967. The 60’s Italian film renaissance then encompassed Mr. Bellocchio, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ermanno Olmi, Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini, among other successors to the neorealists of the 1940’s (Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica, among others). Most of Mr. Bellocchio’s works haven’t been distributed in America since China Is Near, and he has become almost completely forgotten over here.
At the time of China Is Near, Mr. Bellocchio had joined the Italian Communist Party, which was no big deal for Italian artists and intellectuals, then or now. Yet there is some irony in the fact that the Red Brigades, a fanatical Communist Party splinter group formed in 1969, staged its most famous action as an extremist protest against the collaboration of the party with the Christian Democratic majority. If Mr. Bellocchio ever had the slightest sympathy for the methods and objectives of the Red Brigades, it was apparently transformed into a sickened sense of revulsion by the brutal murder of Aldo Moro, the president of the Christian Democratic Party, by the group in 1978.
Of the title of his film, Mr. Bellocchio says: “Good Morning, Night is [from] a verse by Emily Dickinson that I read some time ago. The exact title of the poem is actually ‘Good Morning, Midnight,’ but thinking about that verse, I thought it touched on the spirit of the film exactly; as this play on words, ‘good morning/night,’ is both a contradiction and a contrast. This interplay interests me.”
Mr. Bellocchio goes on to make an unusual statement about his modus operandi for this film, one that I’ve never heard from an American filmmaker about a bona fide historical subject: “Since I’m not a historian, I’m not interested in the factual truth, but more in telling a story in a new and unconventional way. Of course, I needed to dramatize certain elements in the film which didn’t exist in reality, so I invented certain parts of the story, focusing on the young woman’s character and on a young man who’s not part of the terrorist group. I couldn’t just passively recreate the story—the historical truth, that is—if any definite truths in the Moro tragedy exist.”
Mr. Bellocchio has also invented a screenplay within the screenplay with the same Emily Dickinson title. It’s a screenplay written by Enzo (Paolo Briguglia), a worker in the same government office in which the female terrorist Chiara (Maya Sansa) toils at a routine job as a cover for her activities in the Red Brigades. The characters of Chiara and Enzo seem to have been invented at least partly so that Mr. Bellocchio could stage supposedly disinterested debates about the humanity or inhumanity of the individual members of the group. Not that Chiara feels inhibited about expressing her own moral outrage, even to her revolutionary comrades, over the prospect of having to kill Moro if the government refuses to negotiate with them.
As much as Chiara clearly represents Mr. Bellocchio’s calculated aversion to the Red Brigades, the clinching proof of his feelings toward the kidnappers is in his heartfelt humanization of Moro. As Mr. Bellocchio describes the process: “When I was imagining Moro’s character, I often thought of my father, who died when I was a child. My father had something in common with Moro, whom I have never met. Like Moro, he was a very strong man, a conservative, who also had a very profound sense of humanity. My father’s figure has entered the movie and has given life to a character I have never met. Maybe I chose Roberto Herlitzka [as Moro] because he’s from Northern Italy and speaks with a northern accent, as did my father.”
Thus, Mr. Bellocchio’s Moro comes to serve as a paternal presence to his four much younger captors. This may not be the way it was in real life, but it definitely is the way that Mr. Bellocchio imagines it in Good Morning, Night. The film is thus not an effort at an objective re-creation of a historical event, but instead what the French describe as a personal meditation on that event. Whether this approach is acceptable, even among art-house filmgoers, remains to be seen.
What suspense there is arises from Chiara’s dreams and fantasies, imaginatively filmed by the director. In the wishful mental universe he has created, the real and the surreal merge into a plea for a kinder world that now seems further out of reach than ever. Still, the film plays by the rules of crime thrillers for the longest time before yielding to the dream-like consciousness of Chiara and her gifted creator. The satirically ultra-bourgeois opening scene—of an apartment being shown to a supposedly married couple, who later turn out to be Chiara and her fellow terrorist and make-believe husband, Ernesto (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio)—makes the glib salesman showing the apartment an almost comic reminder of everything that hard-core Marxists and Leninists find reprehensible in the capitalist system. Later, the hapless Enzo is arrested by the police as a possible terrorist simply because of the screenplay he has written on the subject, a work he has indiscreetly circulated far and wide in a futile effort to sell it.
Mr. Bellocchio is not without nostalgia for a more edifying time for the left, in the struggle to overthrow the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The occasion is the funeral of one of the aged partisans in that much-honored struggle. Scenes from filmed Stalinist spectacles, faces from Soviet silent and Italian neorealist films, flit across Chiara’s troubled dreams. Mr. Bellocchio also seems to go out of his way to emphasize the banality of the party-line rhetoric spouted by the more fanatical cell members, Primo (Giovanni Calcagno) and Mariano (Luigi Lo Cascio). The kidnappers do allow Moro to write letters to his family, Christian Democratic officials and even the Pope, in a vain effort to get the authorities to negotiate.
One morning, Ernesto opens the blinds of the safe house and sees graffiti on the courtyard’s opposite wall. It reads: “People die from heroin. People die at the factory. Who gives a shit if Moro dies too.” The sentiment expressed is all too familiar in our media-saturated age, in which the always-impatient public demands the immediate resolution of every crime and disaster. At this moment, the film shows how terribly alone Moro must have felt, with even his followers hoping he would die quickly so as to end their own agonies. What finally does happen is part reality, part fantasy and all compassion. It is a strangely moving experience for the historically aware filmgoer.
Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, from a screenplay by Mr. Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, is a Palestinian film about suicide bombers—or, rather, would-be suicide bombers, since we don’t know until the very end of the film if lifelong friends Said (Kaias Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) will go through with their mission or not. It is not an easy call, because Mr. Abu-Assad and Mr. Beyer have balanced the arguments for and against the bombings from a uniquely Palestinian point of view. In this entirely fictional scenario, the voice of non-violence is given (as in Good Morning, Night) to a woman—in this instance, Said’s girlfriend, Suha (Lubna Azabal).
The most depressing aspect of the production is the director’s account of the ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis that interrupted the filming in the West Bank city of Nablus. “To get into the area,” Mr. Abu-Assad recalls, “you have to get friendly with the Israeli army. To survive inside the area you have to work with the Palestinians.”
On one occasion, the location manager was kidnapped by Palestinian insurgents, and the late Yasir Arafat had to intervene to get the location manager returned to the production crew. Even so, many other members of the crew returned to Europe to escape the constant crossfire of Israeli and Palestinian bullets and missiles. Many of the Palestinians were suspicious of the film’s political intentions regarding the suicide bombers—as well they might be, since Mr. Abu-Assad in no way proselytizes for the taking of innocent lives, even in a cause he deems worthy. The point here is not to turn fact into fiction—as in Good Morning, Night—but to make the actors feel more authentic in delivering their angry litanies of grievances on the firing line where the refugee camps are located. That the film was made at all under these fearsome conditions attests to the filmmaker’s sincerity and conviction. And the performances of the actors come close to being heroic.
There is a moment in the film when the two suicide bombers in transit are told that two angels will be on hand to escort the martyrs to Heaven once the deed is done. Even so, I felt that I was no closer to understanding the psychology of suicide bombers than I had been before this moment of blind faith. Nor am I sure that one can fictionalize the grim realities of the Middle East, both before and after 9/11. Said and Khaled are likable enough and sympathetic enough as low-paid West Bank auto mechanics to qualify as working-class heroes in a Marxist allegory. This is to say that their grievances have a bread-and-butter component that is hardly relevant to many if not most suicide bombers. As for Suha, the voice of reason and forbearance, one can hope she will prevail over the louder and more insistent voices from the mosques preaching hatred and revenge. But as a Greek-American who was brought up on a steady diet of ancient hatreds, I wear my pessimism about a happy and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on my frayed sleeve. And not even a well-meaning movie like Paradise Now is likely to help matters apprec